Beginning in the 1960’s and into the 70’s as well, America developed a relatively large counterculture. Originating in San Francisco and spreading from there, the counterculture attempted to redefine what it meant to be a part of American society, how media played a role in our lives, and how people related with one another. This change in thought process came to be known as hippie culture, and spread into all sorts of American foundations; hippie capitalist, hippie labor, and so on. The counterculture is widely noted as a movement of progressive thought, but seemed to contradict its own message when it came to gender. Simply put, women did not achieve the same recognition or status for their contributions to the counterculture, and although opportunities for women widened during this decade, the role of women in the counterculture was in many ways an argument against its own ideas. The second wave of feminism occuring within the hippie culture made plenty of positive progress as a feminist movement, but still struggled to attain the equality that was so central to the ideas of the counterculture.
Michael J. Kramer’s Republic of Rock narrates the many cultural components that came together to form the counterculture in San Francisco, the hub of the movement, and begins with Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, and the acid tests. Ken Kesey, a former author, volunteered for a research project in the early 60’s that tested LSD, and strongly believed that, “that psychedelic drugs could be used as a tool for enlightenment” (Kramer 33). The Merry Pranksters was the name given to his group of friends which included his wife, family, artists, and writers, who all sought to, “explore interpersonal group communications in both their art and their partying,” (Kramer 33) with the use of LSD. Kesey wanted to extend their revelations and experiences to the public, saying “‘When you’ve got something like we’ve got … you’ve got to move off of it and give it to other people. It only works if you bring other people into it.’” (Kramer 34). The parties he and the Pranksters hosted at his house in La Honda as well as in a variety of nightclubs, theaters, lodges, and ballrooms, were the early stages of the acid tests. These events set up the identifying features of the counterculture and psychedelic rock, “loud music, light shows, psychedelic poster art, and intense communion between performers and audiences. They also fused music to issues of citizenship and civic organization,” (Kramer 34). The acid tests in general are best described as “funhouse microcosms of the ideals of Cold War culture in the United States. Participants experimented with what kinds of civic interactions were possible in an inhospitable yet alluring world of the technological sublime” (Kramer 34). The event set-ups consisted of amplifiers, tape loops, strobe lights, black lights, and other forms of image and sound alteration, so that the attendees could understand, “the American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness within the setting of Cold War American power, abundance, and, more ominously, the ever-growing shadow of the escalating war in Vietnam” (Kramer 35). The acid tests eventually expanded past the friends of Kesey and The Pranksters, and invites were handed out to everyone. At acid tests like Muir Beach, the Filmore Auditorium, and so on, fliers were handed out and everyone was encouraged to participate to the best of their ability, solidifying the theme of inclusivity that permeated the counterculture.
The acid tests gave all who participated a platform that, “was profoundly collective, even as it was about individuals exploring their own self-identities.” (Kramer 43). This idea lay a foundation for women to explore their identities, and their connection with American society. That being said, the acid tests, “could be severely limiting for women but also, at times, enthrallingly liberating was indicative of the Pranksters’ emphasis on immersive anarchy.” (Kramer 55). The Prankster’s hope was that, “In the confusing, heterotopic swirl of the events, attendees would, ideally, widen the range of accepted behavior, probe the possibilities of limitlessness, and grasp the need for certain kinds of collective dependence and obligation” (Kramer 55), but despite that goal, women were still receiving labels that their male counterparts did not. They were labeled as “groupies”, even though the Acid Tests remained, “a surprising space for bold new experiences of self, intimacy, and larger social relationships that included, but were not limited to, coupling” (Kramer 53). The beginnings of the counterculture provided a fantastic platform for women to extend and reinvent their own image in American society, even if the pressure of the mainstream culture was preventing them from achieving equality within the new hippie culture.
As the counterculture movement gained traction and spread throughout the Bay Area, they were able to create new images of the functions of American society, including hippie labor and hippie capitalism, both of which stemmed from the KMPX Radio strike and the Wild West Festival. KMPX Radio is attributed with sharing the messages of the counterculture to the massive Bay Area audience. The station hired many essential female employees who, “became known as the ‘bird engineers’ or ‘chick engineers.’ They often had to endure the sexism of the counterculture, which could be even more extreme than the dominant culture.” (Kramer 78). Despite being well qualified for their jobs, female employees were still falsely labeled as “groupies”, “only interested in sexual relations with rock stars.” (Kramer 78). Despite this, the station granted opportunities to women that were previously only available to men. While on the air, Dusty Street said “I just want to say if it weren’t for KMPX, I would never have become an engineer because chicks just can’t make it in this business.” (Kramer 78). Women disc jockeys ended up becoming extremely popular, and were known for having their pulse on the pop culture of the new counterculture movement, and even ended up having their own Sunday show, “The Chicks on Sunday”, which became an essential platform for the Second Wave of Feminism.
Hippie capitalism and hippie labor came to life at the start of the KMPX Radio strike. As the station became increasingly popular, the stations owners were looking to profit off of its wide audience. At the suggestion of the station’s management, the entire staff of KMPX went on strike in protest of the owner’s new methodology, and the limits they placed on the employee’s expression of the counterculture. The central idea linking hippie capitalism and hippie labor was the strive for inclusion of all, and a fair stake in the work and benefits received for their work, which is why the KMPX strike is described as a, “struggle over the stakes of citizenship in the growing counterculture of the Bay Area” (Kramer 67). Thanks to the spreading ideas of the counterculture, the strike had massive community support, indicative of how effective the radio station was in sharing hippie culture with the public. As shown in the TV interview with staffers, they had organized many protest events with community support. Multiple unions backed the strike as did citizens, “But other unions chose to stay out of the conflict. Their reasons speak to the ways in which the KMPX strike diverged from older models and norms of labor activism.” (Kramer 85), worried it would offend their members or even inspire a similar strike. Regardless of some of the resistance, the strike brought hippie culture and its constructs straight into the public eye.
By the end of the 60’s the counterculture in San Francisco had become so large that the local government decided to lean into it, announcing that Wild West Week in San Francisco would be commemorating the, “cultural renaissance centering around the vitality and freedom of expression of music and art,” (Kramer 94). The planning committee for the Wild West Festival made the concert series a centerpiece of the celebration. Music was always a key component of the counterculture. Kesey and the Pranksters utilized it to enhance the Acid Test experiences and recognized its power early on, and KMPX used it’s broadcasting abilities to share this genre and build awareness of issues by using protest songs. The festival was supposed to celebrate the incredible community the music had brought together, but instead brought questions about hippie labor and hippie capitalism to a boil. The festival planners wanted to be inclusive of all citizens, so “If festivals centered on bringing people out of isolation and into shared interaction with each other, why was participation limited by the cost of a ticket?” (Kramer 98). So ideally, the festival should be free in order to be as inclusive as possible. However, the planners quickly learned that their event needed to be paid for, and despite the vision of a “communal life, of political and personal engagement in society and of economic interaction that moved toward more collective modes of production and consumption” (Kramer 99), it highlighted problems. The planning committee was receiving a salary, but the bands, artists, and other contributors were expected to partake for free, directly contradicting the hippie labor idea. The committee, intent on creating a Music Council with the profits of the festival, also enraged the counterculture and its hippie capitalists by seeking to keep more profit and not paying it out to the festival’s contributors. The hippie culture had clearly infiltrated the public in such a profound way, that protestors didn’t even allow for the festival to take place, since it went against so many aspects of the new culture it was supposed to be celebrating.
Amidst the rapidly developing ideas of the counterculture, women also were reinventing their idea of their role in society, and brought about the Second Wave of Feminism. Leading activists fought for women to embrace themselves and their womanhood, instead of comparing themselves against their male counterparts. The fight for equal pay and opportunity was taking on a new life, as well as fights against sexual harassment, workplace discrimination, and women’s health issues. Second Wave feminists famously protested the Miss America Pageant, challenging conventional beauty standards held against women. The movement was heavily inspired by the civil rights movement, the anti-war protests, among others, but there is clear inspiration for this movement drawn from the hippie culture. The Second Wave was spread countrywide, but despite it’s scale, “Most leading intellectuals of second-wave feminism did not develop mechanisms for widely disseminating their ideas” (Blair 31). This is apparent in the various forms of feminism that appeared during the movement. A video summarizing the Second Wave lists off several forms of feminism that emerged in the 60’s; psychoanalytical feminism, humanist feminism, socialist feminism, marxist feminism, radical feminism, post feminism, and ecofeminism. The sheer variety of feminisms in the 60’s is a testament to the influence of the counterculture. The counterculture has always strived for its members to reinvent what it means to be a citizen of American society, how they related to others, and was inclusive of all citizens. Women in the Second Wave were enabled to envision a new society in which they were equal, each woman with their own ideas of the best way to achieve that. Women were truly reinventing what it meant to be a citizen of their society, in true counterculture form.
Women benefited from the new hippie culture, not only by gaining new opportunities in society but by gaining a new platform through the counterculture that they could use to voice their own thoughts about the America they too were equal citizens of. Despite the sexist pressure they endured, and although total gender equality is still something feminists strive for, the counterculture enabled women to find and define their own role, and reexamine the environment they add to.
Blair, Melissa Estes. “‘A Dynamic Force in Our Community’: Women’s Clubs and Second-Wave Feminism at the Grassroots.” Vol. 30, no. 3, 2009, pp. 30–51., http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.sdsu.edu/stable/40388746. Accessed 18 Aug. 2018.
Ideasatthehouse, director. YouTube. YouTube, YouTube, 28 Feb. 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5R1vSZqjO3I.
“KMPX Radio Protest Strike.” San Francisco Tickertape Parade for Nixon (1968) – San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive, diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/232777.
Kramer, Michael J. The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture. Oxford University Press, 2017.